Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

One of the joys of living in the United Kingdom is the network of hiking trails. There are public-right-of-way paths throughout the countryside, traversing pastures, fields, fallow land and woods. These trails have been improved in some areas by organisations such as the  Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

A wonderful setting

The RSPB nature reserve at Northward Hill is one such area and it is indeed a splendid place. Located on the River Thames, the reserve and the neighbouring RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools spread out from a wooded hill down along the floodplain all the way to the river (check out the video below).

View of the reserve

Today my hike took me across the working farm on the north side of Northward Hill. Having stepped in a cow pie, my thoughts turned to the phrase “fertile river bottom”. Just off the path, along one of the ponds, there is a hide (blind) for viewing the water birds. Today, there were various gulls, lapwings, a kestrel, Egyptian geese, plus a few widgeons and ducks in the distance. One of the large ponds has an electric border fence to protect the birds from predators.

Hiking up to the top of the hill left me duly impressed by the fine English mud and wishing that I’d remembered to bring my walking stick. Hiking back along the southern flank of the hill, the trail offers glimpses of the neighbouring horse pasture. But, what impressed me most was the noise of the birds in the thick brush along the margins between forest and field and ponds. Being well hidden, apparently they felt free to let loose (check out the video). The rich mix of songs left me wishing I’d studied the British birdsong CD prior to coming out.

Joyous birds in the brush

(You may need to turn up the volume to hear the birds in this video.)

Band of birders

Monthly, teams of volunteers operate a bird banding station at the reserve. Birds passing through the farm area are caught in nets and banded with ankle bracelets. Their measurements and health are noted and they are then released unharmed. This helps to build a scientific record for use in assessing developments over time at the reserve and points beyond (many of the birds migrate).

Today, the team caught a variety of birds and I was able to watch them in action. The first few birds were familiar blue tits (chickadees) and chaffinches, but then they caught a beautiful great spotted woodpecker (see pictures below). Though not particularly rare, the bird was amazing to see up close. His plumage was gorgeous. The fellow holding him said that the bird’s grip was powerful and that one had to take care to avoid getting caught by  the woodpecker’s beak. Once the woodpecker was released, I went on as well, as the banding team was settling in for a long day’s work.

A favourite haunt?

The area has a bit of colourful history beyond the birds’ plumage.  Apparently, it was a favourite passage for maritime smugglers in centuries past. The access by water and the cover of the forest made a good combination for those who brought in goods while avoiding duties. A pub did a fine business down on the river, presumably offering sustenance to smugglers, customers and customs agents. One published account tells of smugglers bringing in tax-free tea and textiles from Flanders and stashing the goodies in the woods on Northward Hill until they could be distributed.

More recently, during World War II, the area had a higher calling. Part of the site housed a key wartime facility for communications with the US. The structure remains intact, though nowadays it is surrounded by cows.

A fine day out

The Northward Hill reserve proved to be quite a worthy destination for a Sunday out of town, a place to reconnect with nature and recharge one’s batteries. Located about 40 minutes from Greenwich by car (see the map below), it is a convenient refuge not only for the birds, but also for harried urbanites seeking renewal.

Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

(If you don’t see the pictures and map, please click here to display the full posting directly from the web site:

Northward Hill - RSPB Nature Reserve

[img src=]30The road to the RSPB Northward Hill Preserve
[img src=]30Public right of way
[img src=]40Banding a great spotted woodpecker
[img src=]100A great spotted woodpecker
[img src=]60No shortage of mud
[img src=]50Ewart's Orchard
[img src=]50A burst of colour in a green-grey world
[img src=]50Cool colours looking out towards the River Thames
[img src=]60A few buds of end of season red campion
[img src=]70Gnarly branches of coastal oaks
[img src=]50Northward Hill - RSPB sanctuary with cows, sheep, and ships

There are more pictures! Click on the up or down arrows to scroll through the gallery.

Gift aid - The work of registered charities in the United Kingdom is 
supported by a scheme that tops up member contributions with matching 
funds from the state. Thus, members of RSPB can leverage their giving, 
in essence helping to direct state funds toward worthy causes as 
prioritised by taxpayers (including yours truly).

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